The Cash Flow column in the March 23 Business section may have left the impression that taxpayers cannot obtain an extension of the April 15 filing deadline unless they pay at that time all the taxes they owe. Taxpayers may obtain an extension without paying, but they will be charged interest on any unpaid balance, and if the amount paid by April 15 is less than 90 percent of what is owed, they face an underpayment penalty. Also, the Internal Revenue Service is expecting a 15 percent increase in electronic filing this year. The column gave an incorrect figure. (Published 3/25/03)
Procrastination and taxes have long gone together like Americans and apple pie.
The Internal Revenue Service has found over the years that about 1 in 5 individual taxpayers waits until the week before April 15 to file a tax return. At current levels that means the tax agency can expect about 27 million last-minute returns this year.
But what has been at worst an annoyance in years past could turn serious this year. The IRS is looking for a 50 percent increase in the number of returns it receives electronically. And if a huge number of these come in at once, the system could gum up -- or worse.
When people are doing their returns on paper "there are plenty of kitchen tables around the country" for them to work on, and plenty of postal capacity, said Terry Lutes, director of electronic tax administration at the IRS.
"But if every taxpayer in America tried to go online at the same moment . . ." Lutes added, trailing off, perhaps not wanting to imagine what could happen.
He said the IRS faces the same problem that many private online businesses face: "How big a site do you build? Do you build for the peak five minutes," or something that more closely matches the usual level of use?
The tax agency is hoping it can encourage taxpayers to file earlier this year and avoid a crunch.
One common -- and rational -- reason for delaying filing is that a payment is due, and who wants to part with the cash any sooner than necessary?
Never fear, the IRS says: If you owe, you can file now and pay later (though not later than April 15). Lutes said e-filers can authorize and schedule direct debits from their bank accounts "right within their return" so the money doesn't get handed over until it has to be. Taxpayers can also authorize a debit by telephone, he added.
Taxpayers can use a credit card to pay, though they will incur a fee for that.
But while the IRS is encouraging people to file early, some of the entities that the agency likes to call "third-party providers" of information -- in other words, those that send out payment records such as W-2, 1099 and K-1 forms -- can't seem to keep to the agency's desired schedule or, in some cases, share its sense of urgency.
For example, 1099s -- forms showing money other than wages paid to you -- are supposed to be mailed out by Jan. 31. But some D.C. residents report receiving 1099-G forms -- reminding them of the city tax refund they got last year -- as recently as last week. You don't have to have the form to file your tax return, but if you file without it and it turns up showing a different amount from the one you reported, you're likely to hear from the IRS.
And the city government isn't the only problem.
One Northwest Washington woman said she has so far this year received a revised W-2 (from her employer), a revised 1099 (from a brokerage account), a late 1099 (from the D.C. government) and a late K-1 (from a partnership she has an interest in) -- all after finishing her return. "Well, I'm certainly not going to be an early filer anymore," she said.
K-1s are a problem of their own. These forms are used to report, among other things, income from partnerships. Partnerships are supposed to get their K-1s mailed out by the 15th day of the fourth month following the end of their fiscal year. Some send out estimates, others K-1s that may later be revised.
In any case, the uncertainty often causes taxpayers to wait until the last minute to file, or to file for an extension.
Lutes said the IRS is aware of the K-1 problem and "we are looking at that." But for the moment, the best taxpayers can do is to read everything that comes with any K-1 they get to see if there is a warning that it may be changed.
There is one consolation: An extension is easy to get.
People who need one "don't need an excuse, or even a stamp," the IRS says. They can get an automatic four-month extension by telephone or by computer, or by filing Form 4868 on paper.
Indeed, the agency expects to get more than 8.5 million extension requests.
Extension requests must be made by the normal filing deadline, and they don't give you more time to pay if you owe. When requesting an extension, electronically or on paper, a taxpayer must estimate his or her total tax liability based on the information available, and pay anything not already covered by withholding and/or estimated tax payments. If the IRS later finds this estimate to be unreasonable, the extension will be void. The taxpayer will still get credit for any payments made with the extension request.
The IRS has a special toll-free phone line for extensions -- 888-796-1074 -- which can be used by people who filed a tax return for 2001 or 2000. Callers may use Form 4868, "Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return," as a worksheet to prepare for the call, figuring their 2002 tax and total payments made. They get a confirmation number signifying that the extension request has been accepted. They should keep a record of this number, the agency says.
While on the subject of federal taxes, if you are interested in exactly how much the federal government takes from your pocket you can look at the IRS's latest data book, for fiscal 2002, which the agency posted on its Web site last week.
It shows that in fiscal 2002, gross collections totaled $2 trillion from 227 million returns filed. The total amount of refunds issued was $284 billion, of which $210 billion were for individual income tax returns.
It also shows that electronic filing is growing. Of the 131 million individual income tax returns filed, 47 million were e-filed during 2002, up from 40 million the year before.
The book also contains state-by-state data, but don't look for D.C. information. The IRS long ago ceded the District back to Maryland, and its data are dumped in with the Free State's. This hides the city's numbers and distorts Maryland's.
To look at the FY 2002 IRS Data Book, go to the agency's Web site (www.irs.gov) and click on "Tax Stats" in the upper left corner. Then select "IRS Data Book" under "Statistical Publications."
Colleges across the country are suffering from the sagging economy, and many are shifting their student-recruiting tactics as a result, according to a survey by Noel-Levitz, a higher-education consulting firm that is part of Sallie Mae.
The study, conducted in November, found that 58 percent of colleges are altering communications to prospects, with 36 percent emphasizing affordability, 29 percent emphasizing location and 16 percent emphasizing safety.
Other findings of the study, which included 330 institutions:
* Forty percent of four-year private institutions, 16 percent of two-year schools and 24 percent of four-year public schools report decreased funding from endowments.
* About one-third of all schools said they have reallocated funding to offset deficits.
* Thirty-one percent of four-year private schools, 51 percent of two-year institutions and 67 percent of four-year public schools report raising tuition to offset deficits.